London blaze highlights high-rise dangers

At least 12 dead in apartment building fire in London

London apartment fire
In this photo taken from aerial video, smoke rises from a high-rise apartment building on fire in London, Wednesday, June 14, 2017. (Sky News via AP)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — About 60 buildings in Grand Rapids fit the definition of a high-rise — six stories or taller. High-rise buildings don’t burn often, but when they do, the results can be disastrous.

Twelve people were confirmed dead after a fast-moving inferno swept up and into the 24-story Grenfell Tower apartment building in London early Wednesday — and the death toll is expected to rise. Desperate adults trapped in the building tossed young children, including baby, from windows to people on the sidewalk below.

Generally, fires start and burn on the inside, but building material on the outside of Grenfell Tower seemed to help the fire spread. At least one resident said fire alarms never went off.

“We haven’t seen a fire like that one … happen in the United States since the MGM Grand Hotel fire,” Grand Rapids Fire Chief John Lehman said, referring to the November 1980 blaze in Las Vegas that killed 85 people. “That hotel had exterior components that contributed to the spread of the fire in that situation. Building codes and restrictions have since have helped us to stay a lot safer than that in the United States.”

Among Grand Rapids’ high-rises is the 11-story Ransom Towers on Ransom Avenue NE north of Fulton Street. The building, with its 153 apartments, was built before sprinkler systems were required by law, but Lehman says there are alarms and other safety features. The building’s concrete design is another safety factor.

“That actually helps us when we talk about firefighting in a structure like this — keeps things in their little container and if they get out, we’re able to manage it a lot more easy,” Lehman said.

So what do you do if you’re in a high-rise and the fire alarms sound? Lehman says it depends how close to the fire you are.

“You should evacuate if you can. If the hallway is clear and the stairways are clear, you should evacuate,” Lehman said.

Don’t take the elevator. If it’s working, it could stop on the fire floor.

Also make sure you shut your door on the way out. If the fire starts in your apartment, shutting the door could keep it from spreading. It could also keep the fire out.

If you can’t get out of the building, you should go back to your apartment or office and close the door, Lehman said. Your biggest concern should be the smoke, so try packing something like a wet bath towel under the door to block it out. Then find a way to let firefighters know where you are.

“In a building like this,” Lehman said of Ransom Towers, “where you have access to a balcony, go out onto that balcony area and make sure you call and notify 911 of your location in the building.”

High-rise fires are tricky for firefighters. While they burn in a smaller, contained space, they tend to burn hotter. Firefighters also have to climb to get to them. Ladder trucks only reach about seven stories.

While firefighters train to deal with them, residents need to have a plan as well.

“Building residents should be able to understand what their role is in the event of a fire alarm. They should practice that. They should discuss that with their family members,” Lehman said.